with a few words and a lot of hand gestures."
EVS involved a lot of firsts for me; it was the first time I had travelled outside the UK alone, the first time I took a night train, the first time I had lived in another country, the first time I had seen mountains. One of the greatest parts of my EVS experience was that these first time experiences did not end when I arrived at the project but they continued up until the very end. I feel every part of me was touched and changed somehow by my time as a volunteer; from allowing me to become more conscious of the resources we can take for granted in British society today to bringing bigger concepts further to my attention such as the role of consumerism and the problem of climate change.
I volunteered for 9 months in France at a centre accueil called Vaunières, meaning Black Valley, which is hidden away at 2,500 meters altitude in the French Alps. The village hosts a variety of people including groups of school children, teenagers with social problems, international workcamps and passing mountain hikers. During the summer months there was often large numbers of visitors, sometimes reaching around the one hundred mark.It is a tiny village that dates back to the twelfth century and it is isolated in a way that is quite hard to comprehend in today's world of modern connections. It took me a while to adjust to this solitude but now I am incredibly grateful that I was able to experience such a different way of life during my EVS.My daily life as a volunteer changed and evolved during my time at Vaunieres with relation to what groups were visiting.
During the quiet months of spring we were often just the 6 volunteers and so our time was occupied with workshops to develop Vaunieres; plastering the new library space, working on the garden, painting and decorating. As the warmer weather brought more visitors my role became more of a host - welcoming, cooking and cleaning but there was also time to participate in the collective workshops. This provided a beautiful opportunity to share with all the different people staying in the project and helped to breakdown some of the boundaries created by the language barrier. I will never forget trying to teach three teenagers how to sew with a few words and a lot of hand gestures.
A special part of Vaunieres is the artistic and alternative people it seems to attract and a huge part of my EVS experience was the volunteers and the people I shared my time with. I met many inspiring people that I hope to keep contact with forever. When the summer arrived so did the first international workcamps and festivals. There were movie nights, pizza nights, party nights, games nights, international meals, nights sleeping under stars and weekends away. The autumn brought a new, colourful, beauty and a new calm in terms of numbers. But as other long-term volunteers left and the new group arrived I found myself with a lot more responsibilities. I helped to welcome the new volunteers into their new roles and helped organise the final international workcamp of the year. It was perhaps the most challenging part of my whole time as a volunteer in terms of work-load and in many ways a very good way to finish. I am able to now say with confidence, I can speak French, I can drive on the right-side of the road, I can be a leader and I can say no when it gets too much. Of course there were times when things felt too difficult and times when I just wanted to come home and have a hug from my Mum. Sometimes the language barrier felt very isolating and I became quite homesick. But I wouldn’t change a thing. The hard times are an important part of the experience and really enable you to become aware of your own limits and strengths.
If you are reading this because you are contemplating becoming an EVS volunteer then I hope my story gives you the reassurance you are searching for. It is such an amazing opportunity and a real privilege to be able to live in another country and immerse yourself in another culture. It gives you time both to discover yourself and, in my experience at least, provides an opportunity to find many new possibilities for the future and a chance to meet many wonderful people. Also, there is always that guiding hand of Concordia behind you if you run into any problems.
If you are reading this because you are contemplating volunteering at Vaunières, I would whole heartedly encourage you too. There are not many places where you can feel so disconnected from the pressures of modern consumerism yet still be immersed in all the beauty of human potential. It is a magic place. Just remember to bring a good book and maybe some knitting to help pass those cold winter nights….